The King Family papers primarily concern the King brothers, who were the children of Dr. David King, Sr. (1774-1836), and his wife, whose maiden name was Gordon. The eldest of the brothers was George Gordon King (1807-1870), followed by David King, Jr. (1812-1882), Edward King (about 1817-1875), and William King (about 1819-1897). All four brothers were born in Newport, Rhode Island, and graduated from Brown University.
While George studied law and served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1849-1853), Edward, William, and David went to China and made large fortunes as traders, dealing primarily in tea, but also in silks and essential oils. Each of the three in turn was a partner in Russell & Co., the largest and most important trading house in China during the period. Their correspondence shows that they were particularly active in Macau and Canton (Guangzhou). By 1851, William H. King, now a millionaire several times over, had returned to the United States and was doing business around Syracuse.
William King had apparently always been eccentric, but in the 1850s, his mental health began to unravel. In 1864, his brothers attempted to intervene by limiting his access to alcohol and tobacco, but with little success. The same year, King purchased a mansion in Newport, which he named Kingscote. On July 1, 1866, he planned to marry an unknown woman in Troy, New York, but his brothers halted the proceedings and had him committed to the McLean Asylum for the Insane in Belmont, Massachusetts. Though he outlived all his brothers, King’s condition never improved and was characterized by outbursts of violence, paranoid delusion, and, eventually, seizures.
In 1893, a woman named Eugenia Webster Ross petitioned for King’s release from the Asylum. She claimed that the real William King had disappeared in China, and another man, Pelatiah Webster Gordon, was impersonating him in order to avoid prosecution in Boston. She maintained that Gordon was her uncle, and was not actually insane, and that she was heir to his large fortune. The Massachusetts Supreme Court found no truth to her claims, and King died on March 6, 1897, at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston. In February 1898, Ross dropped her request for a new trial, and King’s fortune stayed within the family.